Sarah Paine, Dorothy Palmer and the Child

This week I am featuring three young women/girls who all lived at the end of the 17th century, but who probably never knew each other, Sarah Paine, Dorothy Palmer and “the Child.” Sarah, Dorothy and the Child all charged men with rape, and all three of their accused assailants were found not guilty of the charge.

In 17th- and 18th-century English society, one’s credibility was determined by one’s reputation—or character—and this was especially true in the courtroom. In the case of women, character was inextricably linked to their sexual reputation.[1] Rape trials from this era (during which it was a capital offence, and therefore one that courts were hesitant to convict) demonstrate the importance of chastity in the courtroom, as the female victims/prosecutors in such cases found themselves in a double bind, wherein they had to convince the court with their testimonies that ejaculation had occurred during penetration, but speaking about sex, even in euphemistic language, caused the jury to believe that they were sexually knowledgeable, unchaste, and therefore not credible.[2] Heartbreakingly, in describing the act, female defendants implicitly displayed sexual knowledge, which had the undesirable effect of making them appear unchaste.[3] Since their chastity, and thus their credibility, was tarnished in the eyes of jurors, and since juries were hesitant to convict in cases of apparently questionable evidence, the vast majority of rape cases ended in acquittal.[4] Rape had one of the highest acquittal rates in this period.[5]

Sarah Paine’s attacker, William Woodbridge, was found not guilty on the grounds that the witnesses he produced convinced the jury that Sarah’s charge was “a Design to get Mony.”[6] Dorothea Palmer’s attacker, Samuel Smith, actually confessed, but the court found him not guilty anyway because they apparently remained uncertain about “whether the Girl did consent or not.”[7] The Child, whose name was kept out of the record, had an aunt to testify as a witness to the aftermath of the attack. Despite her aunt’s evidence, Edward Coker was acquitted on the grounds that the “Circumstances thereto [were] not being so direct as to prove a Rape, according as the law directs on those case.”[8] Coker was subsequently charged with and found guilty of assault and “fined 25 Markes” because the court believed the crime had taken place but had not adequately been proven. [9]

I don’t know anything about Sarah, Dorothy or the Child outside of the records of these rape trials, which, it should be noted, are very brief summaries rather than detailed transcripts. What I do know is that they (almost certainly with the aid of their families) prosecuted their attackers even though the odds of securing a conviction were low and the very pursuit of legal action would damage their reputation in the eyes of their contemporaries. This definitely qualifies as the action of a historical hottie.


[1] Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 2.

[2] Anna Clark, Women’s Silence, Men’s Violence: Sexual Assault in England, 1770-1845 (London: Pandora, 1987), 55-58; Garthine Walker, “Rape, Acquittal and Culpability in Popular Crime Reports in England, c. 1670-c. 1750,” Past and Present 220 (August 2013): 115-116.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (OBO) (, version 7.2, 13 May 2016), December 1681, trial of William Woodbridge (t16811207-1).

[7] OBO (, version 7.2, 13 May 2016), February 1681, trial of Samuel Smith (t16810228-10).

[8] OBO (, version 7.2, 13 May 2016), January 1675, trial of Edward Coker (t16750115-3).

[9] Ibid.

Sarah Paine, Dorothy Palmer and the Child

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